How to Cope When Relatives Criticise Your Parenting Choices

The holidays are almost upon us, whilst most are excited at the thought of family celebrations there is a small minority inwardly groaning at the prospect of days spent in the presence of relatives quick to criticise their parenting choices and offer their own advice on how to get little Johnny to ‘sleep through the night’ and ‘stop being so clingy’. The prospect of this is enough to fill the most gentle heart with dread.

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Why do others feel it is their place to criticise our parenting choices? and why are these criticisms so much more free flowing if you have chosen to follow a more gentle and respectful parenting path?

1.Many struggle to understand why we make life so hard for ourselves, our relatives (who usually love and care for us very much) see that we are tired, they see our baby who is only really happy when in physical contact with us, they see us breastfeeding – and that means therefore that nobody else can ease the burden of feeds from us and genuinely they are concerned for us, they want to try to help, they don’t think it’s right that we are making such a martyr of ourselves when we’re obviously so tired and in need of a break. They don’t really think deeper than this when they suggest “you had bottles, surely one or two bottles a day wouldn’t hurt, it might make him sleep better” or “you shouldn’t rush to him so much when he cries, he’ll never fall asleep by himself if you do”. Though these comments might deeply upset us and feel like a slant on our choices in many cases they are only said out of genuine concern and compassion.

2.  The way we parent is not ‘the done thing’. Your relatives don’t see babies in slings often, their friends grandchildren all sleep in cots, their colleague’s children all slept through the night at 2 months old thanks to a formula top up. The television programmes they watch and newspaper articles they read definitely don’t suggest the things you do. They struggle to understand the strange choices you are making which frankly don’t fit with anything they know. Their friends jokingly comment on “that hippy daughter of yours” and they really struggle to understand the choices you make. Sometimes when we struggle to understand something we can come across as hostile and closed minded, when that isn’t necessarily what we’re really feeling.

3. The way we parent isn’t the same way we were parented. You were born in hospital, you were fed the finest milk the supermarket could buy, a little cereal added to your bottle helped you to sleep through at 10 weeks old, you lay happily in your crib in your own room from the day you were brought home from the hospital and your silver cross pram was your mother’s pride and joy. You aren’t doing any of these things, your parents see the wonderful bond you have with your child, they see how happy your child is and how much you are enjoying motherhood (perhaps your mother didn’t really enjoy it) and somewhere deep inside they feel a little pang of something – what is it? guilt? Sorrow for what they didn’t know? Anger at the choices you are making that are deliberately different to the way they parented you? Weren’t they good enough parents?  Imagine how hard it must be to see a younger generation parenting in a completely different way to the way you parented, in many ways it must seem like a slur on your choices. Sometimes it can bring up long buried guilt and sorowy, what if your mother couldn’t breastfeed you? What if your father didn’t have a close bond with you for years? Imagine how it feels for them to read scientific evidence (or perhaps worse – hearing you paraphrasing the evidence) that condemned the way they raised their children. Some (a very few) may be able to forgive themselves and accept your choices with open arms, but for others (most I would guess) the amount of self reflection and forgiveness they would have to process is perhaps just too huge. The cognitive dissonance they experience is overwhelming, perhaps then it is easier to attack your choices than be critical of their own.

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So how can you respond to the criticism?

1. Remember the respect and empathy you show to your baby, try to use the same respect and empathy to relate to the difficult relatives. Just as we always says no child is inherently ‘bad’, I really don’t believe any adult is inherently bad. There is always a reason. You don’t have to understand the reason, or even know why – just knowing there is one is enough. Your parenting has sparked an uncomfortable feeling in your relative, remembering it is not about you, it is about them can make the world of difference.

2. Don’t take the comments personally, their comments aren’t really about you and your child, they are about their own childhood, their own experience of parenting, their peer pressure, the books they read as a new parent, their relatives, their ignorance of modern day science. Remember too that they might not be open to being re-educated, even though it would make things infinitely easier for you. Baby steps are the way forward! You could approach it something like this: “I hear what you’re saying mum and I really respect your opinion, I wonder if you know that there has been quite a lot of research into this in the last few years? The information I have now is very different to the information you had when you had me, I’d love to talk to you about it someday – or I have a great book I could lend you if you’d like to read what I’ve read?”. Above all though know that you are making the right choices for YOU and YOUR baby with the information you have right now – don’t let their comments dent your confidence!

3. If it’s obvious that they don’t want to hear what you have to say then sometimes it is easier for everyone all round if you firstly try to avoid the conversations and secondly try to limit the discussions as much as possible – the next time you hear “I don’t know why you won’t let me give him a bottle” – try smiling and saying “You know I really value your opinion, but we feel this is the right way for us at the moment” rather than being pulled into a discussion on the merits of natural term breastfeeding!

Do you have any other tips? How do you cope when your relatives criticise your parenting choices?

Sarah

About SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.
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